Lessons from story on Globe’s Philip Morris sponsored content
Even very smart people aren’t familiar with the ad concept
A correction and a clarification has been added to this story.
A RECENT story in CommonWealth on a series of articles in the Boston Globe sponsored by Philip Morris has prompted pushback by both the newspaper and the tobacco giant. Their complaints have prompted us here at CommonWealth to look at how we handled the story, particularly whether we gave the Globe and Philip Morris enough opportunity to respond. Our review also convinced us that sponsored content, a form of advertising taking hold in the news business, is a pretty murky subject, one that even world-leading academics don’t fully understand.
Our story had two major elements — the decision by the Globe to accept tobacco advertising in the form of a series of sponsored content articles after promising in 1999 to no longer do so, and complaints from prominent academics and researchers quoted in the articles who said they were never told the stories were being sponsored by Philip Morris.
Sponsored, or branded, content is a form of advertising. Sponsors pay for the publication of commentaries or articles, most of which are produced by freelance writers who work for the Globe but have no connection with the reporters and editors who produce news coverage for the organization.
The Globe, which declined to talk to the freelance reporter who wrote CommonWealth’s story, responded after the article was published, saying the academics and researchers were mistaken about not being told of Philip Morris’s involvement. The newspaper produced emails and text messages that appeared to show each of the freelance writers who were used to write the articles informed those being interviewed that their comments would be used in a story sponsored by Philip Morris.
After briefly being shown the text and emails during a Zoom meeting with a Globe spokeswoman, CommonWealth published a story about the Globe’s evidence and attached an editor’s note to the original article noting the new information and promising to reach out to the academics and researchers for their side of the story.
Of the seven people interviewed for the original article, only one personally responded. Three allowed public relations people at their institutions to comment on their behalf and three did not respond at all.
None of those quoted in CommonWealth’s article have suggested they were misquoted. With one exception, the scientists and academics did not dispute the Globe’s claim that emails sent to them indicated Philip Morris was sponsoring the article for which they were being interviewed. But it appears they either overlooked that information, did not fully understand what sponsored content is, or were simply mistaken.
Officials at MIT said it was not clear to the two Sloan School of Management professors who were interviewed — David Rand and Sinan Aral — that they were participating in content sponsored by Phillip Morris, and that they would not have participated had they known. The officials said they were appreciative that the Globe removed Rand’s and Aral’s comments from the articles after CommonWealth made the professors aware of the connection and they raised objections.
Suzanne de la Monte, a professor of pathology and neurosurgery at the Alpert Medical School at Brown University, said she never understood the involvement of Philip Morris. “I do not recall any discussions about who sponsored the person that interviewed me. I was just answering questions about my science. That’s it. My brain skips past commercial and political stuff. I really only discuss my science,” she said. “My research shows tobacco harm to the brain and liver.”
Three individuals who were quoted in CommonWealth’s original story — Zaneta Thayer, an associate professor of anthropology at Dartmouth College; Massachusetts General Hospital physician Mark Poznansky; and Peter Mitchell, an employee of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection — did not respond to our followup requests for comment.
Slasman provided CommonWealth with the HARO solicitation, which contained the writer’s questions and said the writer worked at the Boston Globe BrandLab. No mention was made of any Philip Morris involvement.
Slasman said Chaudhary responded to the writer’s questions via HARO and only after the interview was completed did she receive an email mentioning the involvement of Philip Morris.
(CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story included a quote from Slasman saying Chaudhary didn’t understand that the reference to BrandLab meant the story was sponsored content. The quote also said Philip Morris’s involvement was unclear to Chaudhary until CommonWealth asked about the company’s role in sponsoring the story in January. CommonWealth subsequently received copies of emails from the writer of the Philip Morris-sponsored story indicating that Chaudhary did become aware of the company’s involvement after providing answers to the writers questions and even asked about how the firm’s sponsorship would be portrayed on the Globe’s website.)
Corey Henry, the director of US communications for Philip Morris, said the content his company sponsored in the Globe was not tobacco advertising and not intended to promote the company’s smokeless tobacco products.
“The series was designed to highlight the power of science and innovation to solve some oif the world’s most pressing issues during the COVID pandemic, in an era when misinformation is rife,” he said in a letter.
The commentary pieces by Philip Morris officials did make a connection between science, the focus of most of the sponsored content articles, and smokeless tobacco products.
“At Philip Morris International (PMI), we have a clear vision for the future,” said a commentary entitled “Driving harm reduction with open science” by Gizella Baker, vice president for global scientific engagement at Philip Morris. “And that is to completely replace cigarettes with scientifically substantiated alternatives that are a better choice for adults who would otherwise continue to smoke, in the international markets where we operate.”
Moira Gilchrist, vice president for strategies and scientific communications at Philip Morris, made a similar point in her article, “Science leading to a smoke-free future.”
“We are now on a path to one day, hopefully soon in many countries in which we operate, completely replace cigarettes with smoke-free alternatives that are a better choice for the people around the world who smoke today. These are nicotine-containing products that do not burn tobacco, which while not risk-free — are a much better choice than continuing to smoke,” she wrote.
The other issue raised by officials at the Globe and Philip Morris is whether CommonWealth gave them an adequate chance to respond to the concerns raised by the academics and researchers.
Colman Herman, the freelancer working on the article, said he began his research by focusing on the newspaper’s decision to accept tobacco advertising. It was at that point that he reached out to both the Globe and Philip Morris. A spokesman for Philip Morris declined comment initially, but did correspond by email with Herman. Herman continued to ask for an interview and ultimately the company spokesman decided to issue a statement. But in preparing the statement, he never asked for a detailed breakdown of the story Herman was preparing and Herman never provided one. As a result, Philip Morris never got to address the claims of the academics and researchers in the statement it issued. That was a mistake.
(CLARIFICATION: The Philip Morris spokesman said he did ask for details of the story initially, when the focus was narrower. He says he would have addressed the claims of the academics and researchers in the statement if he had known about them.)
Globe officials said they did not respond to the five requests by CommonWealth’s freelancer because he was unfamiliar to them and had not yet found a publisher for his article. They also said the freelancer’s requests focused on the company’s decision to accept tobacco advertising again; a Globe spokeswoman said the newspaper had already dealt with that issue in a previous interview with another reporter from another publication and saw no need to do so again.Once Herman began to hear the concerns of the academics and researchers about being included in Philip Morris sponsored content, he probably should have contacted the Globe again to seek comment on this new angle. But the Globe also can be faulted for not opening any line of communication. Its explanation for not responding initially — that the issue being pursued by the reporter had already been addressed in a previous news story by another reporter — was untrue. Dan Kennedy, a media analyst and Northeastern University journalism professor, first reported that the Globe was accepting Philip Morris advertising, but there was no explanation from the Globe for that decision in his story.
When I reached out to the Globe last week for more information on the interactions with Chaudhary of Massachusetts General and an explanation for why the five Philip Morris commentaries were taken down, the Globe again refused to comment.